National Aquarium in Baltimore: A Case of Marine Life Online

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

THE SOLUTION
In 2001, NAIB's IT staff resolved to bring Web site content creation and oversight in-house. "We didn't know how to craft an RFP or even what questions to ask, so we hired a consultant to help us develop one," Keller explains. That work resulted in a 15-20-page "functionality-based" RFP that NAIB submitted to eight vendors, including Interwoven, FatWire, CrownPeak, Microsoft, and RedDot.

"The goal in implementing a CMS was to significantly reduce the amount of IT support required," Keller says of the ensuing evaluation period. "We looked at the vendors' written responses and then had them in for onsite demonstrations. We actually brought in our content contributors to the demos to help us decide. I paid more attention to their facial expressions than to the demos themselves."

Keller and systems developer Jeremy Bair both say usability was one of the most important factors affecting their decision making. "Our contributors have all different types of backgrounds and technical capabilities," Bair explains. "We don't have anyone whose specific role is to write content for the site." Instead, he says, a wide range of staffers would be asked to assume responsibility for site content in addition to their regular duties. "Having something that would be incredibly easy for our contributors was important, but so too were overall functionality and price," Keller elaborates. "The RedDot CMS wasn't the least expensive, but it wasn't the most expensive either." Neither side would disclose how much NAIB paid for the CMS, but Keller says the value proposition it delivered "fit our needs and was appropriate for a nonprofit."

That CMS, an element of RedDot's larger XCMS, includes SmartEdit, a permissions-based WYSIWYG editing tool; Asset Manager, a centralized repository for all site graphics and photos; Site Manager, a tree-structured tool that allows site administrators to create page templates, edit content, define workflows, and assign levels of content approval; Translation Editor, a tool for "localizing" content for international markets; Web Compliance Manager, a tool that ensures compliance with industry and regulatory usability standards; and Import Manager, a tool for migrating content from legacy systems, external databases, and text-based formats.

"The fundamental principle of RedDot CMS is that you navigate your own site naturally," Guarnaccia says. "When you log into the system, you see a replica of the site, making training very straightforward." According to Bair, each training session lasted about 90 minutes. "We rolled the system out to four to eight people at a time," he explains. "We prepared handouts that were specific to each user group and how they would be using the CMS. For the PR department, for example, we documented the steps of putting a press release online and gave them opportunities to practice."

THE OUTCOME
NAIB rolled out its CMS-streamlined site nearly eight months later, in early 2002. The new site gave in-house contributors immediate control of their content and gave IT staff the much-needed site-maintenance relief they were seeking. Over time, Aqua.org has evolved into the experiential site it is today. "The content Web consumers encounter and the way they consume that information are very different from the experiences people get when they come to the aquarium," Keller says. "We relate on the site some of the things you'll see if you visit, but for the most part we're not directly repurposing content for the site. The physical visit and the online visit are two entirely different experiences."

Industry groups have taken notice, too. In 2003, Aqua.org's designer earned a Web Marketing Association WebAward for outstanding achievement in Web site development. And in June 2005, NAIB officials accepted the People's Voice Award for Best Cultural Institution Web Site from the group behind the Webby Awards—the Internet's Academy Awards equivalent. Such honors have been particularly gratifying for everyone at NAIB, given the road they traveled with the site in its early years and the new challenges they would face mere months after implementing a CMS.

In September 2002, aquarium officials broke ground on a $75 million facility expansion that would feature at its core a new exhibit depicting Australia's topography and wildlife. "We knew as part of that huge undertaking that we had to redesign the Web site to showcase the new elements of NAIB that would be opening," Keller says of the Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit that debuted on December 16, 2005. Equally important, they wanted a redesign that would (a) significantly reduce the number of templates the site was using and (b) streamline and shorten the workflow-authorizations process for each page. By late 2004, Keller's IT team once again was seeking outside help. But this time they knew exactly what they needed.

"One of their design goals was to reduce the site's complexity," Guarnaccia says. "They wanted to bring up a new site without having to re-code or re-enter any content." Part of that complexity stemmed from the "granular" authorization model the IT staff had employed when the CMS was first implemented. "If someone needed to upload a document or modify certain pieces of content, there was a complex process associated with who approved it and when," Bair explains. By combining certain templates and changing to a workflow model that gave contributors more control over authorizations, the IT team reduced the number of templates the site needed from 117 to 37.

The redesigned site launched on December 9, 2005, one week prior to the expansion's opening. Since then, the number of daily site visits has grown steadily—from 4,691 in December to 6,707 in February. The increased Web traffic also drove more people into the aquarium: Keller says NAIB enjoyed its best January ever in 2006, with attendance levels up 86% from the previous January.

Although it's impossible to know how much of this surge can be attributed to interest in the new exhibit and how much of it stems from the site redesign, Keller is certain of one thing: his IT staff is happier. "We've had at least a 30-40% reduction in IT's involvement in the rollout of new sections of the site," he says. "I have the equivalent of one-fifth of a person assigned to this."


 

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